Southern exposure

Beat Circus's Brian Carpenter returns to his roots
By BARRY THOMPSON  |  January 7, 2009

BLOOD LINES: “Your family and everything related to your family affects everything you see, and eventually ends up in your art,” says Carpenter (left).

Among countless other — and potentially more constructive — applications for music, escapism is a favorite. But that's not just for listeners. Multi-instrumentalist and Beat Circus patriarch Brian Carpenter has made his share of escapist music, but he's also written dozens of songs that confront real life, from an estranged cultural heritage to his own role as a musician to the trauma of his son's brush with a brain-development disorder.

"I remember coming home from work and my wife told me the news really gently," says Carpenter, explaining a sequence of events that helped shape Boy from Black Mountain, the next Beat Circus record. "We just went into the kitchen and cried for hours. It wasn't a big surprise. We had started seeing behavior patterns during the months prior, but we never wanted to believe it was autism."

This was a little more than two years ago, when Beat Circus were polishing Dreamland (Cuneiform), the first installment of Carpenter's Weird American Gothic Trilogy. The prospective trio of concept albums is couched in American folk traditions and mythos, with a sordid atmosphere drawn from works of Southern Gothic lit — think the America of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Harry Crews. Dreamland is a fantastical, extravagant, largely instrumental circus/folk-song cycle about the infamous 1900s Coney Island theme park of the same name. Its aura was darkly antithetical to Carpenter's own state of affairs. In 2007, Beat Circus would perform live only once.

"I spent that time writing songs about my son, trying to see things through his eyes, and about the phases of what we went through as parents," he says over the phone from a friend's apartment in New York City during a break from mixing Boy from Black Mountain. "Seeing the signs, getting the diagnosis, him being in a constant rage all night long, getting the treatment, and really seeing him almost come out of that spectrum, entering into our world, and finally making eye contact and speaking to us. Now, no one would be able to tell." Autism isn't generally thought to be curable, but Carpenter's son, who was three years old at the time of his diagnosis, no longer exhibits any obvious symptoms and seems set for a more or less normal life.

While enduring his son's struggle, Carpenter found a muse in a different breed of literature. Penning the congenially subdued title track off Boy from Black Mountain, he had in mind Harold and the Purple Crayon, the classic children's tale in which the title character draws his own reality. Then again, journeys through the abyss between perception and actuality could just as easily characterize the Beat Circus project as a whole. There's no logic in calling Beat Circus a "band" when, aside from Carpenter and tuba player Ron Caswell, every album has featured entirely different personnel. The current line-up also sports ex-Karate drummer Gavin McCarthy, and Paul Dilley, who's played bass (often of the upright variety) in Reverend Glasseye, Humanwine, and the Self Righteous Brothers.

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